I’ve been privileged to spend some time in Italy lately. A little in the south, a little more in Tuscany and a little on the “Italian Riviera”. It started as a sightseeing trip: see the landscape, the old cities, the ruins, the shops, the Italians. Then some things happened. I am not going to go into them all, however, I do want to share some events from one day.
First some backstory. I was raised in a mid-western Christian tradition. As I grew older, went out in the world, saw more, learned more; I began to question. Gradually, to me, churches have become, in significant part, artifacts of a system which has failed to appropriately respond to too many of the realities of the world around it. Too many meaningless or hurtful doctrines. Too many arbitrary rules. Too many judgments upon people whose lifestyles do not conform to someone else’s idea of “normal”. Yet, seeing some of the old churches was also part of the agenda on the trip.
It was a sunny, warm Sunday. We were in a town, walking in the centro area enjoying the pleasant, cooling breeze which was very present on the hillside the town was built upon. Then, unexpectedly, all around us the bells of several churches began ringing. The sounds reverberated through the narrow streets lined with buildings. While there were many bells ringing at once, they were all in harmony. It was beautiful. We stopped in one church and witnessed a monk lighting some candles. He was a younger man, tall, dark hair, wearing the brown robe and white belt which monks of his order probably have worn for centuries. I remember noting that people are still joining monastic orders. Then an older monk appeared. His appearance and bearing were striking. Short, stocky, with a ring of white hair around the tan, bald crown of his head. I could not help but notice the kindness and intelligence which were very present in his eyes. I felt a liking and an admiration of this person. While he and I very well might not agree on everything, I found myself instinctively respecting the dignity and sincerity which this individual embodied.
I had entered the church with shorts on, above the knee. As we left there was a sign (which had not been present at the door we entered through) showing appropriate dress for the sanctuary. Shorts above the knee are not appropriate garb. I realized the church held profound importance and relevance for some and that I was a visitor, a guest. I resolved to respect the dress code for any future visits to churches.
As we continued our walk we came to the main cathedral in the city. Mass was going on and could be seen and heard through the doors which were probably kept open to capture the wonderful breeze which cooled the otherwise hot day. I looked through the doorway, inside there was a small (for the size of the cathedral) group of worshipers sitting mostly toward the front of the cathedral. Unbelievably there were tourists walking in, strolling, looking around, examining the art on the walls and ceiling, probably taking pictures. It was as if the worshipers were exhibits in a zoo. I was amazed at the disrespect being shown by the tourists. I have no idea where the tourists were from. Probably they were from more than one country and ethnicity.
I realized what I was seeing was a microcosmic display of something that has become far too common in our world: a disrespect for the essential being and lives of others.
“It’s all about me” has become the motto of too many people. Or is it that we are seeing each other as abstract concepts and not whole human beings, like ourselves? We don’t have to all agree on everything. We don’t have to all hold the same values, tastes, or desires. But somewhere within those values, tastes and desires needs to be an essential, basic respect for the lives of others. The spiritual journey we engage in, whether within or without an established church, is usually an important, central aspect of our lives. We should, within reason, endeavor to respect the spiritual journey of others. I think allowing worshipers to enjoy the sanctity of their worship service is a gesture of a basic, essential respect for the lives of others.
Maybe then we can also realize the need for regard and respect in such things as freedom from violence, the need for food and housing, a clean environment, the need for medical care, and the mutuality of our lives around the world.